After our nine weeks in the Community, almost single handedly slogging our guts out to get the library finished, we were in desperate need of a break and some quiet time.
What better place to be then, than La Paz – the bustling capital of Bolivia, famed for its horrendous traffic and constant protests by some group or other. And that week was no different, with the indigenous Tipnis, fresh from their 65 day – 1000km march taking up residence all around the main presidential square in tents provided by Unicef. The Police, having been cajoled out of their strike the week before, now standing guard armed with full riot gear and tear gas. How relaxing….
Luckily, we had decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel which would be quiet and away from any trouble. Quiet had it not been right next to the main University where the student band practice went on into the early hours. Oh well.
Then Chris had a great idea – relaxation in the form of going on a three day mounatain trek up nearby Huayna Potosi, ice ax in hand, scaling the mountainous height through meters of snow and across glaciers only to rise at 2am on the last day for the final push to see the sun rise from the 6,080m peak. The lack of oxygen tearing at his lungs, tired legs struggling to work, altitude sickness and fever breaking out in half the group, it’s a wonder he made it to the top. What a perfect way to unwind after nine weeks of hard work on a building site?!
Meanwhile,Chloe sensibly decided she would rather unwind in the comfort of her nice hotel room, soft bed and deep hot bath, coupled with some nice wine and pleasant evenings spent with some new found friends. Lovely.
Obviously a day or so wandering around the city didn’t go amiss, although the steep, slippery-smooth flagstone streets, thickly clogged with black diesel fumes pumping out from the exhausts of the buses struggling up the inclines were again, less than relaxing. That’s why people are walking around wearing face masks……
The buildings were nice though – a mixture of grand colonial and run-down chic, the streets are full of the vestiges of great wealth, now bustling with street sellers and tourists that keep this city alive.
Upon Chris’s heroic return from the snowy capped mountains, and in celebration of Chloe’s birthday, we took a ‘private tour’ off to Tiahuanaco to discover the remains of the vast pre-Incan culture for ourselves.
The Tiahuanaco civilization was one of the largest, and longest living in the history of mankind, starting initially as a simple farming community from the Lake Titicaca area as far back as 1500BC.
The Tiahuanaco culture gradually grew, becoming recognized as a developed civilization in around 300BC increasing in strength and power through various stages of sophistication and expansion to their peak as a major power in 800AD. Their steady decline, due to internal civil unrest and drought led to their practical elimination by approximately 1000AD. Communities that are said to be descendants of the Tiahuanaco still live around the Lake Titicaca area.
The centre of the Tiahuanaco culture is to be found on the shores of lake Titicaca, an hour outside of La Paz. Half-crumbling stone pyramidal temples rise from the scrub earth, sunken temples catch you by surprise, (good job that rope is there – nearly fell in!), and huge intricately carved monoliths have been uncovered under the watchful eye of UNESCO. Although the locals have now been granted control of the site which is slightly worrying, especially when you see them traipsing around with wheelbarrows, shovels and bags of cement…. Hmmm, what are they up to…
Having done some cultural stuff, Chris was desperate to get back to the adventure, and what better way to satisfy that need than to cruse out to the infamous ‘Road of Death’ – the old road eastwards from La Paz, down into the cloud-jungle.
So called because of the amount of deaths in any given year – deaths owed to the narrow rough track tucked against a cliff side, with a sheer drop on the other. The track, barely wide enough for a normal family sized car, used to cater for all manner of cars, trucks and lorries.
With few passing places and hundreds of curves and sharp corners – DANGER! CURVAS PELIGROSAS! – snaking steeply down the mountainside, the chance of having an accident must have been about 80%, especially knowing the speeds and recklessness which the local drivers seem to think is normal. And don’t forget the landslides too.
Luckily for us, and the whole of the Bolivian population, there is now a new road which takes all of the through traffic, vans and lorries safely down into the jungle valley, leaving the old ‘death road’ pretty much free for downhill mountain bikers and their support vans, and the odd tourist here and there who want to say they have travelled on the most dangerous road in the World.
The fact that it is no longer the most dangerous road in the World doesn’t stop the likes of Chris wanting to career down it at, oh, 10mph, being overtaken by those crazy downhill mountain bikers.
The Death Road landed us in the pretty town of Coroico, where we found ourselves a relaxing hillside retreat and slept for most of the afternoon, having worn ourselves out with the exertion of bracing on our forearms for four hours downhill, crawling safely through the tree tops of the jungle and into the valley.
The next morning, waking up refreshed and ready for new adventures, we jumped back on the bikes and swiftly and smoothly re-climbed the mountainside back, zig-zagging backwards and forwards, back towards to La Paz. This time taking the new road, avoiding those mountain bikers still coming one after the other, flying down the Death Road.
Bypassing La Paz on the high road, we got a great view of the city sat in a bowl, surrounded by suburbs perched on the mountains. Thank God we weren’t going back down there again – we were almost chocking on the smog and diesel smoke from up there!
But we were off to pleasanter lands, the quaint little town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca and only a hop, skip and a jump away from the Peruvian border. After a short but mildly tense boat ride across the strait between the northern and southern lakes of Lake Titicaca, we landed on the other side to the challenge of getting the bikes off the rickety boat, trying to avoid holes in the spartan wooden deck.
Slight panic and decampment from Chloe left Chris heaving the bikes around alone, until the ancient leathery seaman came to the rescue and gave Chris a bit of a run for his money!
Copacabana itself is a sleepy little town, little known compared to its bold and glamorous counterpart in Brazil which was actually named after this quiet little lakeside retreat in Bolivia, home to the Virgen de la Candelaria.
The Virgen de la Candelaria, a carved statue of the Virgin Mary dating back to 1576, is said to have special powers, and purportedly looks after fishermen caught in storms on Lake Titicaca. Her shrine in the Basilica in Copacabana is apparently one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Bolivia. However, for us, arriving on a Friday evening, our highlight was a lovely meal looking out over the bay and an early night. The next morning would bring with it a big day – the morning would bring Peru.
Morning came, and we vacated the hostel in search of a good breakfast before having a look round town then heading for the border. Breakfasted by 9.30am, we wound our way to the main plaza to be confronted by a traffic jam of epic proportions, panic buying at the petrol station? Religious gathering . .surely not … then there were flowers being flung about, wreaths, golden plastic decorations – the works. It took us a while, but eventually we realize that no, it wasn’t a funeral, but was in fact the blessing of vehicles by the incumbent priests, offering the Virgin’s protection – Oh yes, we did read about that somewhere…. Excellent! We can dress up our bikes and get them blessed by a priest! (Chloe)….. Do we have to? Can’t we just get going…? (Chris)…. No, you miserable old goat, now go and buy some flowers….
So, (the royal) we went and bought flowers and plastic wreaths and dressed up the bikes and waited in line to be blessed with holy water sprinkled over the bikes by a floppy flower. COOL!
So after our bikes had been blessed, we rode off happily to the border feeling like hippies, Chris desperately wanting to rip off his pretty flowers, but not wanting to waste the extortionate amount he paid for them…. Oh yes, he’s a Scot.
Once into Peru, after a fairly straight forward border crossing, we could leisurely make our way alongside the Peruvian, southern side of the Lake which to be fair, wasn’t much different. Apart from the road side walls peppered with holes – they were different, clearly a Peruvian way of building with round stones. No idea how they stood up, but at least with all those holes, they wouldn’t blow over in the wind….
Puno was our first stop in Peru. A small town with a hugely, intricately carved cathedral, where we got all our clothes washed including riding gear…. Mmmm nice and clean!
While in Puno, we also ventured out to visit the floating villages on Lake Titicaca. Forced out onto the lake when the Incas expanded onto their land, the first of the ‘floating community’ lived on their reed boats, floating about, catching fish and trying to stay out of the way. In time, they joined forces, tying their boats together, creating larger and larger ‘living areas’. Eventually, they discovered that beneath the reed fields floating on the lake were large buoyant, but solid, root systems up to 2m deep. When the water level dropped, they cut up the floating pads, tied them together, anchored them with rope to the lake bed and made ‘land’ from floating rafts. Covering them with 1m of reed, laid out like a thick carpet, they now had a proper stable base on top of which they could build houses.
The Uros people have now been building floating islands for 250 years. There are near 60 islands, each housing between one and four families. They have a ‘community island’ where there is a restaurant and hang-out place for the young people, but mostly, the villagers keep to their own ‘patch’ where they make tapestries and reed artifacts to sell to the tourists, as well as tend to their chickens and pigs than live on their island with them. Large catamaran-style reed boats are made especially for weddings between the Uros, but can then be handily used for tourists, taking 10 at a time on little tours around the community while one of the children serenades us.
Back on dry land and back on the bikes, we left Puno for Chivay and the Colca Canyon, apparently the deepest canyon in the World, (unless you consider the Yarlung Tsangpo in China a canyon, in which case that is even deeper!)… either way, the Colca Canyon is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon measuring in at 3,501m deep.
Stopping in Chivay for a night, en-route to the canyon, we bumped into one of the pioneers from the Polish expeditionary group who in 1981, were the first t kayak down the canyon and fully explore it’s enormity. Nowadays Andy, (AKA Andrew Pietowski, expedition leader), lives in the USA but returns to Chivay each year with a group of volunteers to spend six weeks in the summer, running an English language course for the children. Luckily, while searching for a hostel, Andy flagged us down and pulled us into the friendly hostel where they were staying, and do so every year, for the duration of their stay.
Having washed and tried to get warm, we then spent the evening trying to get a bit warmer in their ‘office’ while sipping coffee and rum – in separate glasses – while listening to tales of the 1981 expedition, life in communist Poland and current trekking expeditions to the source of the Amazon from Andy and mate Dave.
Up early the next day we were winding our way across to the canyon via a few pretty little towns on the way. It being our anniversary, we had planned a nice leisurely-ish days riding along the top of the canyon, condor spotting, and then a ride to the coast where we would find a nice beachside hotel and treat ourselves to a fresh fish dinner – how wrong could we be!
Things took a little turn for the worst when, after spending the morning riding the top of the canyon and condor spotting ,(and at that, seeing only two), we found ourselves following a never-ending dirt road, up and down, round and back again, weaving through the mountains, curvas peligrosas slowing us down at every turn while we desperately tried to get down…. What we thought was going to be a nice three hour ride after lunch, turned into an agonising six hour struggle to get somewhere, anywhere, before it got dark. Preferably off the bloody mountain.
By 6pm it was pitch black and we had already turned round twice, the map telling us lies, and us not wanting to trust the GPS. Eventually, we took a chance and aimed for the coastal town we were convinced was there…. One hour later, after trying to ride two inches behind cars to borrow their lights, we eventually found ourselves coming into Camana – our seaside town. Thank God.
Romanic meal was postponed. We found a hotel, showered and collapsed on the bed, aching all over, unable to move. Tummies rumbling that just wouldn’t shut up, we staggered to the closest place we could find that served food, ate, then went back to bed. Anniversary deferred until tomorrow.
Waking up much more cheerfully, we planned our route to Nasca. Two relaxed days of riding, most of it alongside the Peruvian shores. Dramatic beeches, steep cliffs, huge sand dunes cascading into the road and more ‘curvas peligrosas’ as we wound our way around the serpentine coastline were to be the menu for the next two days.
An evening stop in an idyllic bay where we sat and watched the tide come in was just what we needed after our traumatic day the day before. Perfect for that all important ‘anniversary celebration’!
On the way to Nasca, we stopped off at a pre-hispanic cemetery where ancient tombs have been preserved after being found plundered in the 1920’s. The cemetery was used by the Nascans for approximately 600 years, between 200AD and 800AD, and their mummies, preserved in the dry-dry heat of the desert, are almost all perfectly intact, with skin beneath their robes, cloth and hair still bound around the crouched forms, knees up.
By the time we reached Nasca we were ready for some more research into the Nasca culture, their tombs, their lives and of course their bizarre lines. A couple of museums later and a very brief star gazing lesson, where we saw Saturn through a telescope, we eventually came to the conclusion that it’s all just a mystery – lines, stars and all!
Most researchers and archaeologists agree that many of the lines do correspond to astronomical lines such as the south cross, the brightest stars in the sky, the summer and winter equinox etc etc. These would tell the people of Nasca when the seasons would change, and most importantly, when to hope for water. But there are thousands of lines… not all align with the stars. Other theories include pointers to underground water sources, parade grounds for marching, sacrificial platforms and ritual walks.
Then there is the figures of animals and stylised flowers and people. We had gone looking for answers, as most people have done for nearly a hundred years, but found none, only more questions.
The only thing that they know for certain is that there are three phases stretching over hundreds of years. The first phase of drawings in the desert were spirals and stylised swirls. The second phase was the figures of animals, flowers and other characters. The third, the thousands of lines which ran over many of the previous shapes. It seems that every few hundred years, new theories necessitated new drawings or lines to summon the Gods or pray for rain.
Of course, the best way to see the drawings in the desert is by plane, so up we went, eager to find new theories while flying swiftly around on our half an hour slot! Thank goodness there was a pilot and Chris didn’t have to fly the thing. Lucky that, since he was horrendously sick. Several times.
Eager to get back onto the bikes, that being something Chris was comfortable with and could ‘be a man’, brushing aside his feeble air sickness, we launched ourselves into ‘Operation Machu Picchu’. Of course we had to get to Cusco first – the capital city of the Incas and the springing point for Machu Picchu. So leaving the deserts of Nasca, we wound our way back up and across the mountains, weaving, twisting and turning enough to make us (or rather Chris) sick all over again. The warmth of the coast turned into the freezing air of the altiplano, riding across the passes at over 4,000m once again. Quick lunches on the road, spot of llama spotting, then we were cruising down to Cusco, to a very biker friendly hostal where we met up with some good folk to talk bikes and discuss the benefits of the hundreds of options of how to get to that sacred mountain city…. Operation Machu Picchu really had begun!
Dropped bike Chloe 3 v 0 Chris
Sick bags used in fight over Nasca Chloe 0 v 3 Chris
Nearly sick with fear on Road of Death Chloe 1 v 2 Chris
Emergency pee in Police station Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Emergency poo behind rock Chloe 0 v 1 Chris